I’m getting better at writing short stories. I attributed my increase in success thus far to the notion of “choosing better premises”, coming up with more ideas than necessary and developing those that seemed to have the most energy to me at the time. This is a way of “pre-vetting” a story before you’ve even written it!

What I’m doing now—one of my favourite early-in-the-year exercises, is improving stories I haven’t yet had published. Doing so has taught me what I can do beyond “choosing better premises” to take my stories to the next level in a way that feels intuitive to me. I’ve come up with a method that seems technically rigorous but airy enough to let the subconscious in. In the following series of blog posts, that’s what I want to share.

(And when I say “intuitive”, it means I won’t seem to be saying anything you don’t already know—maybe just articulating it in the way it makes sense to me. An attempted demystifying process.)

They say rejection is the norm, and it’s true that most of it will be out of your control—and is thus not worth worrying about at all. That doesn’t mean we get out of mitigating what of the process is within our control.

So, here’s an intro to how I’m starting to see stories.

When I studied engineering, I did these cool (I thought) reactor simulations. You would have a bunch of fixed “initial conditions” that you would feed to your reactor model—temperature, pressure, concentration of reactants etc—then you would let the simulation run and it would tell you how the mixture of components in the reactor changed over a week, month etc, and what you were left with at the end. If you set up the model properly, and provided enough initial conditions, and those conditions were correct, cool—you’re done, write it up. What was more likely, at least on the first attempt of a new simulation, is that the thing would come up with a bunch of error messages. You didn’t set enough boundaries, so the simulation returned an impossible solution.

Some simulations I had to do were 2D cross-sections of reactors. When they were done, they’d show, for example, how concentrated various particles were in different regions. The images looked like thermal imaging, showing pockets of red where the particles concentrated, the swirls of eddies coming off them diluting into an un-mixed blue. The images would look rough at first, but I’d set the simulation to perform 1000 iterations of the same calculation, over and over, until the image became clearer.

The reason the simulations had to be repeated over and over was because the calculations they used were just approximations of what might happen in real life. Nature by comparison is so complex that it could only be approximated, in these cases, by calculations.

And the calculations had ways of measuring how much error their images contained. Rules of thumb told me what size of error was acceptable in order for me to trust the image I was seeing. I could decide if that was good enough for me and move onto the next simulation, or if it was worth my time setting up the simulation to run for a further 1000 iterations.

In this analogy, the reactor simulation is your subconscious. The initial conditions, the components you feed to it, are the components of story: plot, characterisation, setting, theme. The story is a meaning-generating system.

Any story can be corrected, but those stories that are set up best at the beginning will have the least error messages. Also, it may be the case that you run it once and it comes out perfectly—but whether it does or not is more likely a case of guesswork than a question of your skills as a storyteller/scientist. Sometimes I’ve gotten lucky and guessed it all almost correctly. But very rarely. And is that the point, really? No. The point is good results, not how they are obtained.

Scientists have hypotheses: what they expect to happen. Similarly, I’d advise preparing a rough plot outline. You haven’t killed your creativity if you end up right, or close to right. It just means that you’re a good scientist!

It’s perfectly legitimate to send a short story out if you determine that one fix might take another month’s worth of work, say, but add very little to the overall picture. No matter what anyone claims, no story is perfect. Maybe one definition of perfection would be, “A dead-on match for what would happen in real life.” And there’s no way of knowing that, but there are damn good ways of approximating it. And like my simulations, approximations are good enough for their purposes.

The point of story, I think, is that it’s so close to life that it’s good enough. Maybe even scarily accurate. But never perfect. So close to the truth that it resonates with people you’ve never met.

So this part is just me setting up my analogy. In upcoming blog posts, I’ll outline how the way I write applies this way of looking at story.

You can follow this process without liking my analogy. You can even write something good without following this process, but I bet it would take you longer. It sure took me longer without it! I’ve found it’s best to do this stuff up front because you won’t get out of doing it later.

So I hope you enjoy these posts, which I’ve scheduled to release this week and next!